Posts Tagged ‘Prisonshake’

Mike Rep.

April 30, 2017

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The back room of Used Kids was cramped, a musty claustrophobic din of shelves, boxes of records, large bundles of brown paper bags that were as thin as dust, that would tear if someone slid a record in even half crooked and Dan’s desk. His desk was shoved into a tower of peach crates, stacked sideways to form a make-shift shelf where all the receipts, tax paper, and unsold cassettes of Cordia’s Dad and the Wolverton Brothers held down the leaning tower of almost splintering wood. In the middle sat a furnace that had seen better days, whose piping was in fact rusting while in the far corner lay a darkness that only the High Street rats would venture too. Crammed in the rear of the room was the bathroom, itself a frightening hazard as one was not sure if one of the rodents the dodged around the clutter may suddenly appear behind the toilet while someone had dick in hand. There was a period when a series of Chinese restaurants were housed above us, the last one that somehow miraculously dodged the health department despite leaving uncovered tubs of slimy chicken meat by their backdoor and a grease trap that attracted all types of animal life, even in daylight hours. At one point, the rats were dying within our cinder block walls at an alarming rate, and the Chinaman who operated the restaurant would suddenly forget his English when I addressed him, scowling at me, “no rat here!” to which I usually replied, “yeah, cause they all fucking died in our walls!” Finally, one day, he was gone, his shop turned black but he had left all the food and soon enough after repeated calls to the landlord, some poor fuckers came and loaded out all the spoiled food. A heavy blanket of rotten stench coated the record shop for nearly a month before this happened, the heavy summer heat only poured gasoline on the problem. The rat problem slowed to a trickle after that.

Some of the boxes in the back where marked for our Goldmine auctions, Goldmine was a record collector magazine that ran nostalgia interviews with everybody from Mike Nesmith, Nancy Sinatra to Captian Beefheart’s guitarist, Gary Lucas. The back of the magazine was chock full of various record auctions, set sales that small shops across the country would advertise whatever collectable records that they came across. Many of these were of the “bootleg” variety or the always sought after radio shows. These radio shows were really a goldmine to independent shops, mostly put out by Westwood One these multiple LP sets were pristine recordings of FM radio bands. Some were much more famous than others, Fleetwood Mac, Heart, and Bob Seger but there were other, lesser known bands—fly by night artists that barely made a flicker on the charts or even rock radio, bands such as Frankie and the Knockouts, Greg Kihn, Quarterflash and John Cafferty. These smaller bands fetched very little, $5-$20 but the superstars, Bruce Springsteen, The Eagles or even R.E.M. could fetch hundreds of dollars. A needed influx of easy cash for us, but a pain in the ass to assemble as all the auctions had to be done via mail or phone. Record keeping and knowledge of what was more collectable were essential, when CD’s came out the shows and programs expanded, In the Studio, Hot Wax and others came on the market and the CD’s were much easier for various DJ’s and radio station employees to smuggle out and sell to us. Besides the radio shows the auctions would also be made up of other collectables, garage singles from the 60’s, rare art and jazz LP’s would sell well. The task for keeping track of these sales fell to two of the most colorful characters on High Street during the past forty years.

Mike Hummel was one of the first people along High Street to record his own music, and then press it to vinyl, his “Rocket To Nowhere” (Moxie) came out in 1977 a blistering blow-out-speaker of a song that at once seemed to capture the sonic waves burping out of Cleveland but infused with Mike’s love of all things Alex Harvey. Mike was able to straddle a fine line of the freedom of punk rock but with a keen eye of the art-y flamboyant sounds of the aforementioned Alex Harvey, early Alice Cooper, and glam-era Lou Reed. Initially he was a shaggy haired figure who would drop by the store, carrying loads of white record boxes to the and from the furnace of the back room, to his car, and later that night it wasn’t uncommon to see him manning the pool table at Larry’s with large leather hat and long leather coat casting a shadow over the table, a large glass of whiskey nearby. He was usually with Jim Shepard or Ron House, frequently one would find them by the back door of Larry’s smoking a joint and talking in hushed tones, probably exactly like they did in high school.  Dan had a contentious relationship with Mike at that time, and if there were any mistakes in the auctions or record show sales, he would berate Ron, “Well, he’s YOUR best friend” as if Mike was responsible for every fuck-up that went on in a store full of fuck-ups.

For Jerry Wick and I, Mike was somewhat of a mysterious shadow, he would slip in on Friday’s picking up a few of the white cardboard LP boxes, huddle in the back with Dan and return the next Monday with a manila envelope holding the winners of that months auction. That night, we would spy him and Shepard at Larry’s poetry night, grumbling that we were constantly shooshed while various nervous types, wearing berets, scarves and inky mascara stood before a bar full of people and read poems and prose from tattered notebooks. “Jesus, I forgot it was poetry night, let’s to go BW’s at least we can drink in peace and play trivia”, Jerry would say as we slumbered to the still local BW-3, that hosted trivia amidst a juke-box the poisoned one’s ears with the latest Jock Jams. Peace indeed.

Soon enough, we discovered the genius of Mike as he was soon working part-time in the Used Kids Annex smiling a broad smile, with his ruffled hair and white teeth he was handsome enough to have been a model for a hybrid of Creem and Playgirl, if such a thing existed. It was easy for us to find fault with Mike, as in our curmungendy-wary twenties, we tended to dismiss a great deal with a thought that would leave our mouth before being properly matured, as Mike was prone to listen to the Doors with the same ease that one of us would put the Stooges or MC5 on. What we didn’t fully realize was Mike came of age when rock and roll turned suddenly more dangerous, when the infuse of psychedelics, marijuana and Quaaludes were stuffed into tight jean pockets to be consumed in Detroit made cars as long as speedboats while the click-click-click of eight-track players boomed out the sounds of “L.A. Woman”, the Bob Seger System and T. Rex. Ron House once remarked that he had felt as if one had to make a choice in high school between Alice Cooper or the New York Dolls, Mike Rep defying both sides would proudly choose both. We all realized that like Jim Shepard, Mike had been making a mix of punk-infused art rock since high school. For the first Datapanik single, label head Craig Regala asked the Boys from Nowhere (themselves a mishmash of punk and 70’s hard rock, that never achieved the success of east coast counter-parts such as the Lyres) to cover “Rocket to Nowhere” while the b-side featured future Greenhorn brothers, the Spurgeons blasting through Peter Laughner’s “Dear Richard.”

“Rocket from Nowhere” is now a highly sought after single, an almost sinister and gleeful three minute announcement of boastful destruction of which Columbus had not quite seen; the Datapanik single was our first introduction to the capabilities of Mike Rep and the Quotas. When the Used Kids Annex opened up, Dan Dow recruited Dave Diemer from Capital City Records down the block to run the shop, Mike came on board full time and usually worked in the afternoons and evenings. There was a large concrete supporting wall that separated the two stores, one tip off that Mike had arrived was the musky scent of marijuana that would seep through the back-room wall. Mike would flip the “Back in Five Minutes” sign up and go to the back of the Annex and fire up, when Lamont Thomas (Bim) worked for us, he would also slip next door for a five-minute escape. Almost like a high-school kid trying to cover up his tracks, Mike would gargle some Scope, and light some incense to cover the smell—it was comical but the fear of drug busts, even for marijuana was still a possibility twenty-five years ago.

One day as I brought over a stack of records to the Annex, Mike was busy pricing 45” records in his shaky chicken-scrawl and singing loudly along to Phil Ochs, in his smooth tenor Mike sang along “I’d like a one-way ticket home, ticket home….” Records can be used a silent code, opening the possibilities of connection almost like nothing else, and for many it is a bigger escape than alcohol, drugs or most anything else. My own fascination with folk music and singer-songwriters started early, an affinity for Richard Thompson whom I saw open for R.E.M. when I was 17, and I had been fed an endless supply for Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Leadbelly as a host of Folkways records as a very young child. Discovering used records stores along High Street when I was 18 was akin to getting into a doctorate program at an Ivy League school, swallowing the songs of Tim Hardin, Townes Van Zandt, Butch Hancock, Gene Clark and, of course, Phil Ochs had an incredible impact on me. To find others who held some of these songwriters as close to their hearts was inspiring, the songs and artists were small fireflies of light in a life drenched in darkness. In the eighties and early nineties most of these acts were still obscure, Ron, Dan, Captain, Mike and I had all seen Townes Van Zandt at a small nightclub/eatery called The Dell in the early 90’s there were only eleven people there and Townes got so drunk during his brief intermission he ended the second part of the show basically telling stories while strumming laconically on his guitar.


Phil Ochs was an inspiration, not only because he grew up in Columbus and used to drink at Larry’s but because he was a man who appeared to hold his principals above all else, whose sensitivity to the world around him would eventually lead to his death by suicide. Looking back, it is easy to see that he as many other artists we admired suffered from Bi-Polar Disorder (Mark Eliot’s “Death of a Rebel” is essential reading on art, alcoholism and mental illness), but as young man who himself battled oppressive bouts of depression, including a suicide attempt, Phil was a revelation. When Mike sang along with “One Way Ticket Home”, I stopped in my tracks, and although we had known each other for several years we immediately connected  about Phil and records.

Later that year, a small band of excitable men from Dayton were coming up to the shop to hang out in the Annex, I knew one of them as Bob Pollard who would come up sporadically to go record shopping. Mike had helped mix one of the first New Bomb Turks and Gaunt singles as well as record some of the early Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartment singles, gutting the almost smooth farfisa college rock sounds of Ron House’s Great Plains for a big rock via muffled cardboard 4-track  recordings of the Slave Apartments.

At one point the valley of Ohio was the furthest west the country could have imagined, beyond the mountains of Western Pennsylvania and Kentucky, with the Ohio River holding an almost mythical hold that the Ohio Valley held on the forefathers of America were epic, a land of dangerous promises that appeared almost laughable 200 years later as mid-west promises collapsed under the girth of rust-belt nightmares. The fertile soil in Ohio was bathed in the blood of British, French, American and sadly, Native Americans who were massacred by degrees during the 17th and 18th centuries. Frontiersmen such as Daniel Boone and Simon Kenton, trudged through the swamps of Southeastern, Ohio marking claims with rifles, knives and gunpowder leaving a trail of destruction from Marietta to Toledo. The fables that grew out of the carving up of Ohio by these men were the tales that little boys would play throughout vacant fields and the patches of woods that dotted small town Ohio. Even today, supposedly, there is some buried treasure hidden by Simon Kenton somewhere near Springfield.

The ancient history of Ohio goes back thousands of years, the earthworks of Fort Ancient, specifically the curling 1,300 foot Serpent Mound dates anywhere to 400 BC to the 11th Century, other earthworks dot Southern and Central, Ohio and in a sad commentary on 20th Century capitalism, one in Newark has a private golf course sitting on top of it. One can imagine the ghosts of Native Americans dodging errant golf shots whilst crying paranormal tears. One wonders if the people who grow up in the proximity of the Grand Canyon or the white tipped waves peaking off the coast of Maine realize the beauty and wonderment of the world they live in, or does one just accept these everyday astonishments as melting into the background of their existence, to finally, with just the shadow of a shudder, turn into the mundane? Serpent Mound is one of the great American treasures, as mystical as Stonehenge but with nary a speck of explanation left the builders. Serpent Mound is hidden in the deep Southern portion of the state, at least 100 miles away from Columbus, 250 miles from Cleveland and 80 miles from Cincinnati, the region used to be filled with coal miners and poverty cuts a deep wound into this region of Ohio. Nonetheless, the fascination with Serpent Mound has been relegated to mostly outliers in Ohio, pagans, Native American groups and those who tend to lose themselves in dog eared books, long hikes and the passing of pipes.

Mike Rep was transfixed with Ohio lore and more specially the history of Native American spiritual sites, the importance of locale has been steadfast in Mike’s world, a walking internet of facts about the region, Mike was the first person who told me about the Mothman. It was easy to dismiss Mikes fascination with the buried myths of the past, not only with the historical aspects of the Native culture but, in a shock for Jerry and I the self-myth making of musicians such as Jim Morrison and Donovan, musicians we had dismissed as we climbed out of mid-adolescence to our late-DIY-infused teenage years.

It was somewhere around this time, 91 or 92 that we were introduced to Tom Lax, who runs the fantastically spot-on Siltbreeze records from Philiadelphia. Ron and Mike introduced Jerry and I to TJ (as we called him), most likely at Larry’s or at Ron’s House. I knew Siltbreeze as the label that put out a V-3, Gibson Brothers and Sebadoh singles; Jerry and I were a bit in awe of Tom and Mac Sutherland’s ability to put out quality music from around the world, all hinged on music that was unsurprisingly artistic but full of attitude.

Even though, as a glance over the weighted shoulders of time, Tom, Ron, Mike and Bob Pollard were only a few years older than us, that space between someone who is 19, 20 or 21 to someone who is in their early thirties can appear vast, which turns the space horizontal, making an invisible pedestal in our minds. Siltbreeze mined Franklin County as if the sewers below High Street flowed with music instead of shit, and the avalanche of damaged esoteric music that Tom and Mac championed out of Columbus should have made them both honorary citizens of the city. The list is as long as a some of the tales that would bellow from Mike Rep’s drunken dialogues: Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, Creeper: Ohio, Times New Viking, Sam Esh (whose warbling most resembled a washing machine playing a one stringed guitar), the Yips, the Gibson Brothers, Psychedelic Horseshit, V-3 and of course, Mike Rep and the Quotas. Tom, understood the musical acumen of Mike, whose taste in music has been unapologetic as well as trendsetting (see Guided By Voices, Times New Viking, Gaunt, New Bomb Turks, Strapping Field Hands…).


Mike walked through the main side of Used Kids one late afternoon to fetch a Black Label beer from the small and overworked dormitory refrigerator that kept us all sane during our salad days and he stopped at the side of the counter and sang along with me as I sang in my off-key quaver to Spirit’s “Animal Zoo.” It was shortly thereafter, that Siltbreeze put together a compilation of Mike’s hard to find and unreleased records stretching back into the 70’s. “Stuper Hiatus Vol. 2”. It’s a retrospective that runs the gamut of the punk-fueled deadism of  “Rocket to Nowhere” to the b-movie-whipit inspired “War of the Worlds” with a great dollop of Mike’s love of Roky Erickson smothering the homemade 4-track recordings. It also showcased Mike’s unusual taste in album cover art, utilizing the cover of a French-easy-listening record with Mike’s name on the cover.

Meanwhile, Mike was working hard on several projects, many of which he (kinda) cloaked in secrecy, per his intentional shrouded self-made persona, “I’m working on something that is pretty interesting, when you close up shop come over and give it as listen” he would tell us through his wide grin as he took a couple beers next door to the Used Kids Annex. After work, Jerry and I would stop in the Annex, with all the lights out except the dangling white Christmas lights that hung from the low ceiling, Mike would be blaring whatever he was working on. It could have been Guided by Voices “Propellor”, Prisonshake’s “Roaring Third” or the Strapping Field Hands “In the Piney’s”  or even a four-track recording of Donovan that Johan Kugelberg had asked him to remix (this is another story) but whatever it was it was always ear-splittingly loud. The smell of marijuana drenched the air like a green wave of humidity, a palpable smell that stuck in your nostrils like cat hair on a sweater. This night Mike was mixing something different, a bouncing effect laden song, it sounded as if the vocals were being channeled through a wading pool of water and ectoplasm, shimmering over fuzzy guitars and a small choir singing, “there’s aliens in our midst.” I stopped dead in my tracks, I had assumed it was a V-3 song although the lighthearted nature of the song, with a glint in the song’s eye suppling an aspect of care-free bizarreness that Jim Shepard would have been too self-conscious to lay down on tape. “Who is this?” I asked. Smiling broadly, Mike replied with wide eyes, “it’s the Quota’s but it’s a Twinkeyz cover.” Not knowing who the Twinkeyz were but assuming I should, I mumbled something like, “this is a great cover”.

The next time I worked with Mike he handed me a Maxell cassette  with his chicken-scratch pointy scrawl, “this is everything we’ve been recording.” The tape might as well have been stuck in the Pioneer tape deck in my 82 Ford Mustang for as much as I listened to it over the next month, the songs covered a gamut of sounds that spanned Mike’s fondness of music. From Roky Erickson to the Phil Ochs-cum-ragtime “America’s Newest Hero” and experimental Flying Saucer Attack inspired “One Thirty-Five.” Speaking with Mike over beers one night at Larry’s, “maybe I can put the tape out?” Soon enough, Gary Held from Revolver listened to it and loved it, he and Mike had spent some time together when Gary visited, perhaps they had even visited Serpent Mound together? After a few months of putting the cover, itself another in a long-line of bizarre record cover art from Mike, “A Tree Stump Named Desire” came out on CD. Mike wanted the record to come out on LP but due to the length of the record, a proper single LP pressing did not work, although it was cut to lacquer twice, Mike was never happy with how it sounded so there are only a handful of test pressings of the record.

Some people live on an island, not to the extent that it is a conscious choice but in the end the pursuit of art and creation tosses the irons of mainstream life that can fetter and clog the desire some have to pout what is inside their minds and lives onto paper, canvas and at times, into small recording devices, these are the people many of us are attracted to in our lives. Some may create to achieve adulation, to live forever in a moment of song while many do for the moment of the moment, the ones who can capture a singular feeling that transcends all the seconds, hours and days that follow it. The repercussions of the creation are just a bi-product of what needed to be produced. Most likely these are people who may tend to their gardens in self-imposed isolation, write silently in coffee shops or paint alone in their garages or tiny studios. For many they are tethered to small machines that capture sounds to be digested later, fueled by experience, alcohol, drugs and yes even whip-its. Mike Rep Hummel is one of these people, a man who holds no pretenses and who has managed to help discover and guide an unlikely assortment of talent that has helped inspired and influence the lives of many people who find their greatest solace in music. Guided by Voices, Times New Viking, V-3 and the New Bomb Turks all are indebted to Mike, who continues to do what he has always done, which is to cram what is inside of his shaggy head and cut it into tape without a fear of what the outcome will be. Fearless.



Jerry Wick and Jenny Mae: Cars, New York and Alcohol 1991-2003

December 14, 2013

Cars, New York and Alcohol 1991-2003

The great American fascination of the automobile fell upon deaf ears to most of us, unless it was tied up in a song (ala, “Born to Run”), books (“On the Road”) or film (as a metaphor for escape), the insular world that we inhabited was confined to walking distances or to the touring van. In rural Ohio, a car is a necessity, a way to get from here to there, which covered miles not city blocks. Springfield Northeastern High School was nearly eight miles from my house, a fifteen minute car ride or a nauseating school bus ride over rolling hills, sudden stops and a rollicking-rolling trip spent upon spent shocks that lasted nearly an hour from school to home. It is impossible to ride a bicycle on these rural roads where the average speed of cars rocketing over the sudden mounds of earth and slopping quick valleys, that if timed with the right amount of acceleration could lift a small car over the peak of the hill. The roads, even the state routes are all two lanes and for even the most accomplished cyclist this method of transportation would be inviting trouble.

In high school we drove when we could, and upon reaching the age of sixteen procuring a car was the highest sense of order no matter how poor the family was. For a car provided an escape, from the boredom of the humid summer days that cracked upon the sweaty backs of angst-ridden teenage boys, from the isolation of playing Atari video games while Pink Floyd sang about adolescent rebellion masking as claustrophobic stardom and as the pangs of burgeoning sexuality cause near madness. Our family was poor, we lived off of Bob’s sole paycheck which hovered just over $12,000 for a family of four. Zoltan was given a car by a friend and I relied on the broken-up and often broken-down Corolla that Bob drove. Eventually, Zoltan gave me his pale gray Mustang that had never driven correctly since he tried to plow through a creek only to have the car get stuck in the mud and slowly fill up with rising creek water. Smoke billowing out above the cool water that rose above the bumper, I crawled in and yanked out the Radio Shack tape player–the player someone forming a perfect union with the engine for as one pressed the gas pedal the whining of the engine would play through the speakers. “Bela, get the hell out of there! The car might blow up!” yelled Z from the bank of Mud Creek. “It can’t blow up, it’s buried in water!” I screamed under my breath as I wrestled with the wires, my knees getting soaked in the brown water. Eventually we got a kind farmer to pull the car out with a tractor and after a few days of airing out, it ran again but never quite like the $400 car it was. More like a $350 car.

In Columbus not everyone had a car, Jerry Wick never had a license as far as I knew although I had offered to let him use any of the litany of the small compact cars I had over the years. He walked everywhere and eventually got a bicycle and this was this mount that he riding on when he was tragically killed. Sadly, Jerry a punk till the end didn’t think he needed a light, reflectors or a helmet (although a helmet would not have prevented his neck from being snapped like a twig when he was hit that night twelve years ago.) Road trips were common, mostly to Cleveland to see bands, either at the old Euclid Tavern, the Grog Shop or sometimes Public Hall. Other times to Cincinnati to Sudsy Malone’s a Laundromat bar that hosted bands as well or to Bogart’s, Cincinnati’s answer to the Newport but more of a shoebox than the ornate Newport with its high oval ceiling and elaborate wooden balcony. Most of my trips were to Athens, where the hour and fifteen minute drive, fueled by a six pack and a handful of cigarettes would fix my racing mind.

Other times, I would drive to New York, my first drive in the 1967 Dodge Valiant, which I bought for $500 from Matt Newman a guitarist for High Sheriff Ricky Barnes who was the first in Columbus to start playing old country standards among a handful of, at times brilliant originals. Soon, the Gibson Brothers, Hank McCoy and others followed suit. Matt was moving to California to seek more lucrative professional possibilities than playing for a handful of regulars at Staches, while wearing thrift-store western attire. I got his light blue Valiant, a standard “3 on the tree” that had a warming system that just worked on the passenger side and left a small pools of ice on the floor when parked overnight during the winter. My first drive to New York was to see Sharon, who lived with Herbert Hunke. Herbert lived in the same apartment he had lived in since the mid-seventies, and he was still on daily methadone and would rise early, write and walk the five blocks or so to the methadone clinic. Sharon said he would venture out with a young Puerto-Rican man who she wasn’t sure was Herbert’s boyfriend or not. I made that first trip with Jack Taylor (Richie Violet) who was going to see his friends in New York. He was pals with Judah Bauer from The Blues Explosion, the men in Railroad Jerk and Charlie from Surgery and the band Unsane. He was close to Sharon and would razz her in front of me about her relationship with me, partly due to his own crush on Sharon and partly because he did not feel I had enough rock “acumen” to go out with such a beautiful woman. Perhaps I didn’t but I was head-over-heels for Sharon who was not only stunning beautiful but also carved out a life in NYC.

The drive was good for both Richie and me, he was trying to stay clean, and while we did not discuss his heroin habit we bonded over “Exile on Main Street”, The Blues Explosion and our love of Great Plains and country music. He was funny and poked fun at me for my unabashed love of alcohol which he derided as “unnecessary, you don’t need that to laugh do you?” he would ask me. As we pulled into view of the Manhattan skyline, the tape deck blasting the Silos my heart beat faster, “Good Lord” I thought, it’s the biggest fucking thing I’ve seen. As a child I lived on Long Island, in Springs NY, just an echo from East Hampton and my memories of the city were vague as if looking through a pool of water. We went through the Holland Tunnel, and came out upon a sea of graffiti and garbage piled high, I was lost in a storm of streets as I tried to navigate traffic and Richie pointed where to turn. Soon we were driving towards Alphabet City where Sharon and Herbert lived.

The apartment was between Avenues C & D on 8th, just below the sidewalk, and the apartment was filled with books, magazines and old furniture. Sharon blushed when she saw me, we kissed and she introduced me to Herbert who saw small and hunched over. He shook my hand, his grip was strong and his hands seemed to be constructed of leather, rough and covered with the experience of hustling and scrapping. He had bright blue eyes and a shock of gray hair the sprouted from the top of his head. He did not appear to be a man in his eighties. “Bela! Glad to meet you, Sharon has told me all about you. Bela, like Bartok? Right? She tells me you love to read, I’ll be curious to find out what you like to read. Did you know that I’m a writer?”  I had known who Herbert was, not only from what Sharon had told me but I had read some of the Beats, although I was not the outrageous fan of so many in the underground. In fact, I was never a big fan of William Burroughs whom I regarded as somewhat anti-women but I enjoyed the beat poetry and the movement itself.  Hunke’s own influence on the Beat movement was massive, from the coining of the term Beat to being a major influence on both Burroughs and Ginsberg, He was portrayed in both Junkie by Burroughs and also in Kerouac’s “On the Road” and when he asked me what I read and what I wrote about he appeared pleased.

I felt at home in New York, although this partly came from ingesting the music from New York since the age of fifteen, I had devoured the Ramones, Lou Reed, Garland Jefferies and Springsteen as a teenager. The grim of the lower east side was burned into my consciousness and as I walked the streets, the busyness of the sidewalks were already tattooed to my synapses. I had picked up Garland Jeffrey’s “American Boy and Girl” at Woolworths for a $1, his entire solo catalog, like that of his sometime collaborator, Lou Reed was easily had for a buck a record. Although Garland had never had the amount of press or even credit he deserved he made a couple of seminal NYC albums that rank near the top of all music NY. Perhaps he is best known as writing “Wild in the Streets” which catapulted The Circle Jerks to their punk-rock fame but from the mid-seventies until the early 1980’s he constructed a trio of albums that hold up quite well.

In a teenager’s mind, New York was built of asphalt and steel, with bustling sidewalks that mimicked the opening scene of Cagney & Lacey or of Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight huddled next to one another, it was not constructed of clumps of dry cornstalks, gravel roads and flat ranch houses. The music from New York filled my ears, especially Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground. I had never heard as anything as grotesquely inviting as “Street Hassle” from the mid-west and it would be a few years before the frantic noise of Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys, Cleveland punk bands that would echo the realistic poetry of Lou and other New Yorkers.

On later trips to the city, which came in bunches over the next few years as I visited Sharon whenever I could and would make the nine hour trek to various rock and roll shows at Under ACME, CBGB’s, and the Knitting Factory all of who were open enough to book Columbus bands. The shows themselves are a blur, as are the years and the trips. Through the memory is a faded as the soft light in a 1970’s soap opera, it is burnished at times through the recollections of friends who were there at that time. One such trip when Gaunt played with Prisonshake and a few other Ohio bands at CBGB’s whose restroom was designed after the open sewer systems of Calcutta. I drove on my own and got to the club early, Gaunt was already there, mid-afternoon and as I walked in, sunlight bathing the sidewalk outside the bar was long and smelled like any other bar; with a scent of bleach and stale beer, I ordered a Budweiser and was alarmed at the $7 cost. How in the hell anybody could afford to drink in New York was beside me, Jerry grabbed me in the dressing room, “Dude, don’t drink here” he said as he grabbed my shoulder and steered me out of the bar. We strolled across the street to a small carryout, complete with guy-with-unwashed-clothes-and-defeated-look sprawled out on the sidewalk, brown paper bag clutched firmly in his hand as his head leaned on the brick wall and directly to his left a metal garbage can. One half expected Oscar the Grouch’s head to pop out or a needle laying next to the man, or a needle hanging out of Oscar the Grouch’s neck. Jerry walked right to the good stuff, which was 24 ounce bottles of Crazy Horse a malt liquor that had recently been discontinued in Columbus and next to that rows of green bottled Balintine, another malt liquor that was guaranteed to fuck-you-up. They were about $2.50 each and I bought one of both. “Were the hell do we drink it?” I asked. Jerry scoffed at me, “on the street you dumbshit! They don’t fuckin’ care, it’s fuckin’ New York!” After this lesson these malt liquors and well hidden bottles of Jim Beam were my preferred choices.

New York made me feel big, as if the soles of my feet made an indentation into the sidewalks, my mother had briefly flirted with New York in her late teens. Living in the Bowery District before heading back to Columbus, for reasons she never explained. There was an energy that fed into the boyhood dreams of a Midwest outcast, of the idea that I could shake the inner turmoil and isolation I felt in high school, by smelling the smells, tasting the food, blending into the scenery of the city–as if feeling small in the smaller town of Catawba propelled the perception of being gigantically alive in the city. I had become friends and acquaintances in the city through the record shop, indie-rock was a very small world and it was common to have coffee, lunch or drinks with many of the folks who the store did business with. The community I felt a part of was much more comforting in New York than whatever I felt in Catawba.

Even still the feelings of unease hung onto the tails of my shirt and enveloped me no matter where I was, whether in the living room of my father and his wife as they foisted homemade Hungarian cookies into me, lecturing me on the dangers of homosexuality, God’s retribution and my indeterminist failures, or the talking to Sharon while we laid in her bed, waiting for her to end the magic I felt between us. Later, the unease would be swallowed by gallons of alcohol, as brown and green bottles were turned upside down, the unease would melt into a carefree carelessness that could quickly break down the walls of trepidation between me and another. I pined for attention, yet like a bug trying to land on a light bulb, I would scamper away when the emotions were too much. In my mind, I had already been defeated.

Some ten or twelve years after that first trip to New York, so long before it had appeared to be only a fleeting appiriation in my mind, for the world had changed so much in a decade. I arrived in New York with my wife, as we drove north to Vermont to see our old friends Dave Sweetapple and Ron Schniderman in Brattleboro. My wife had some business to do in the city with her job, she and I had suffered through a precarious spell in the preceding years and many of the old haunts I had know were now left to the faded pages of punk rock books and time-stained saved flyers of music collectors. CBGB’s, Under ACME and Brownie’s had been shuttered, the move out of  lower Manhattan had already begun, with the bearded and ironic hipsters moving into Brooklyn where rents were still low enough. The dive bar that our friend Paul Lukas had taken us to a few years prior in Red Hook had now become a destination point and anyway, I had decided just a year prior that a bar was a dangerous place to be. We stayed with our friend Matt Majesky, a man of unblemished taste in books and music, who suffered no fools and had a stinging sense of humor. I went into the city and while my wife attended her conference I headed to the lower east side, this time not in search of a bar but instead a twelve-step meeting. There was a clubhouse on 14th near Avenue C that was open 24 hours a day, that week I went to three or four meetings there. Upon entering the first meetings, I grabbed a small cup of coffee, holding the tiny Styrofoam cup in my hand I took a seat in the third row. I glanced around the small room, there were roughly sixteen or seventeen plastic chairs in the room, a few people ducked in and out, one man, with black greasy hair, matted to his forehead, jumped down the three stairs that emptied into the room. Look nervously around, he clasped his hands together, his tattoo’s covering his forearms, a biographical inking for all the world to see, as if his arms were issuing a challenge for anyone who looked in his direction. An image of Lucifer snaking up his arms, with flames, nude women and  a pair of dice camouflaged in the middle of the bursting reds, yellows and blues that careened off of his forearms, there was no room for hair or his pale skin. It was if he had gargled an entire tattoo magazine and they magically appeared on his body. He bounced on the balls of his feet, shook his head and bounded back up the stairs. The air was charged, as if someone had taken the tops of the electrical sockets and the air was being pumped full of invisible sparks. To my rear a man with a dark suit and a briefcase sat back, whistling softly to himself, was he whistling a John Denver song? I looked back, he appeared tired, fatigued, glancing at his watch he too was bobbing his head, nobody was relaxed. In the front of the room, two men whispered to one another, and one pointed to me. Raising my eyebrows I asked if they needed something, “well yes, we do. I think you have the most sobriety in the room and we need someone to qualify for us.” Luckily, after absorbing many Lawrence Block books about an alcoholic private detective named Matthew Scudder, I knew that qualifying on the east coast meant giving a lead in the Ohio. That is, I had to tell my story. I had only nine or ten months sober but I had been instructed by my own AA sponsor that when AA asks something of you, you are compelled to give back. I accepted.

Alcoholics Anonymous was an entity that I had heard about during my twenties, I had even visited one through a family member when I was seventeen, not for my own concern but for support. I had thought nothing of it, it was a place for old people to hide out, I supposed. The charms of the alcohol had provided were too great, too strong and too fun to ever think about, but the charms were constructed of liquid and while the laughter, belonging and sex the bottle brought into my wife also rolled out on my life like piss down my leg and eventually rolled down to the floor. The puddle would take years to grow around me, taking a bit of myself one drop at a time until eventually, there was nothing left except confusion, anger and bewilderment. Attending a meeting in a Lower East Side AA clubhouse was startling, considering where I was just 24 month prior, contemplating suicide and being unable to trust myself in front of a bottle any bottle.

Sauntering up to the plywood podium, that was cracked around the edges, with the plastic wood veneer pulling itself up from particle board, it appeared as if it were hoisted from the gutter as many of the alcoholics who stood before me appeared. Eyes opened wide, with an emotional shakiness brought alive as the hourly obsession of a fix either by needle, pipe or bottle throttled from inside some of them, it was expected that I would bring some salve to their pining obsession. Shaking myself I took a deep breath, this would be the first time I stood in front of a group and tell my story. One man, nodding to himself, stood up and paced the small room, the yellowed walls, tanned by years for cigarette smoke provided a backdrop to his skittish walk, his hands petting his legs, smoothing out crinkles that just weren’t there.

Speaking for 25 minutes, I took questions afterwards, this was a bit different than the meetings I was used to in Gainesville and Columbus. Afterwards, a balding, toothless man from Iran approached me. “Hello Mr. Bela, thank you so much for qualifying, you helped me so much today. I live on the streets here, it is hard to not drink. I am from Iran, and it is so hard to be an alcoholic in Iran as you are not allowed to drink. It was easier here, always drink. Always good times. Always. But I lost everything, my wife, my child even my uncle will not help. I have eleven days today, and thanks to you, I will have 12 tomorrow.” With a flat smile I thanked him, I was never good with compliments. As I stood in front of the clubhouse, the sun splashed against the concrete, and my shadow stretched from the curb into the street. An elderly man approached me, “Hey, that was a nice qualification. My name is Ed” he said as he extended his hand, “would you like a cup of coffee?”  We walked down the street to Avenue C, and entered a polish bakery. Telling me his story, he was a playwright and had gotten sober in the early 1970’s, “I come here nearly every day, especially since my partner passed away a few years ago.” I was encouraged, “I still write, every day a little bit of something, the alcohol was important back then but it staggered me, I lost my job as an editor and my contacts but I found AA or as they say, it found me. And here I am, nearly thirty years later, happy.”1967plymouthvaliantcoupe04

Later that week, I met my friend Lyle, we talked and had a coffee. Lyle had gotten married, and had several small young children. The last time I had seen Lyle was when his band had played an Anyway Fest, and the night they played I had inadvertently walked into his room while in a brownout. The guest room was halfway between our bedroom and the bathroom and it was not uncommon of me to me to fall into the guest bed upon relieving myself as I was too drunk to manage to stumble the ten more paces into our bedroom. I was in a brown-out that night, and ended up spooning Lyle waking up to his shrill, “Duudeee, you are fucking naked!!” and then having him hand me off to my wife, “I believe he is your responsibility” he said as he passed me off in the night. Sitting on a bench in New York, Lyle said, “Bela, you seem happy now.”

Jenny Mae & Jerry Wick part 39: Matador at 21

October 16, 2010

Matador at 21

Standing on the shoulders of the past is a dangerous position gazing through the haze of dead bodies, former lovers, and the highs and lows of the past can provided a remedy for today. 1989-1990 were years of planting seeds, at least for the soft underbelly of the fermenting underground scene. At night we huddled in bars, clutching long-necks as if they were talismans, eyeing bands on crumbling stages while looking for lovers through the haze of cigarette smoke. Back then we got paid to listen to records and laugh at the responsibilities of the rest of the world. Very few of us had children, had jobs that required button-down shirt or, god forbid had mortgage payments to make. The thirst inside of us was for music, booze, and the sense of belonging that those two ingredients can provide.

The grotesque hierarchy of major labels and commercial entities tried to foist the sickening, barbaric, and sexually destructive machismo of such drivel as Warrant, Motley Crue, and other purveyors of all things hair, spandex, and stupidity on us. The underground scene was more approachable, and although Dinosaur Jr. may have lacked the audio sheen of “Girls Girls Girls”, the guitar solo from “Freak Scene” ferociously laid waste to the whole ridiculous genre of 80s corporate rock, and Dinosaur Jr.’s song was more honest about relationships than anything Vince Neil and his skinny dumbfuck drummer could ever hope to aspire to. We discovered that those who made the most precious, moving art were among us, just a phone call or, better yet, a 7-inch away.

At Used Kids, we were connected to the loose but sophisticated network of labels, booking agents, fanzine writers, and fans across the country. There were only a few distributors getting the music into people’s hands. The labels were started in living rooms and some, by sheer force of personality, perseverance, and hard work, lifted themselves out of those living rooms and into real offices with fax machines, computers, and maybe even a Starburst commercial or two. It’s ironic that now, twenty years after the static indie/grunge rock revolution, many labels are again being run out of living rooms, coffee shops, or wherever one’s laptop may be. Because of the kind but acerbic enthusiasm of Ron House and Dan Dow, whose reputations preceded them, I got to know most every important player in nineties underground rock. A tiny touchstone in the largest college town in America, soon I was handling the ordering at Used Kids, and I started booking shows into the cozy confines of Staches and Bernie’s. My own enthusiasm was exhausting—records were more important than anything. more important than sex because a record can’t hurt you, more important than jobs because songs don’t have responsibilities, and more important than families because music can’t leave you.

Gerard Cosloy phoned Used Kids one day and asked Ron to order the first full-length record on his new label, Matador Records. My memory is clouded because I thought it was Teenage Fanclub’s A Catholic Education, but it must have been Superchunk’s self-titled debut. In any event, we ordered a handful and were blown away by both records, especially the life-affirming sound of Superchunk’s “My Noise” and “Slack Motherfucker,” the sentiments of which laid the groundwork for an entire generation soon to be labeled Gen-Xers. A Catholic Education was itself an epiphany, combining the raggedness of Sonic Youth with the fragility of Dinosaur Jr. (two bands that Gerard had worked closely with at Homestead Records). Teenage Fanclub’s record was beautiful in every staticky, disordered note, a watershed of sound coalescing into what may be described simply as Perfect Sound Forever.

We ordered direct from most labels; Scat in Cleveland, Dischord in Washington, DC, Ajax in Chicago, Siltbreeze in Philadelphia, Sub Pop in Seattle, and Revolver in San Francisco. All of them were run by people with the same devotion to musical escape that we shared. It wasn’t too long before I was working closely with the labels as bands played and sweated through the college towns and major cities across America. Bands and label employees knew that they could find ears and couches in Columbus, and it wasn’t long before Columbus had become a main stop for touring bands. I discovered that every town had someone like me who was all too willing to shell out meager guarantees to musicians who were escaping their own mundane jobs for two weeks to eat greasy eggs and falafel and snuggle up to a stranger’s dog. I got to know some of these folks myself, either closely or by the casual association of the scene. In Athens, Georgia, Henry Owings booked shows and was soon putting out the devastatingly funny Chunklet zine that lampooned our entire tiny universe. In Pittsburgh, a curly haired, overtly serious short man named Manny brought bands in by the dozens. In Cleveland, Kathy Simkoff eked out a living finding bands to fill her small club, the Grog Shop, with many of the same bands who would wake up at eleven A.M. on my floor and make the two-and-half-hour drive to Cleveland.

I had only two unpleasant interactions with bands over the years, both involving bands that I booked as favors for their labels. The first was H.P. Zinker, who managed to have the debut releases for both Matador and Thrill Jockey Records. I had gotten a last minute show for them at Bernie’s on a Monday night with Gaunt, who had just “signed” with Thrill Jockey. There were all of six people at the show—me, Gaunt, and one rabid, blonde-haired fan who stood in front of H.P. Zinker for their entire set. The drummer also played in the Amherst band Gobblehoof (for whom J. Mascis moonlighted on drums) and he was a bit irate that I didn’t have more than the fifty bucks I gave him out of my pocket. He threatened to take me outside and “kick my skinny little ass.” At that point in my life, I was sober—a quiet, peaceful record store guy whose only aspiration was to listen to the next Ass Ponys record. There were to be no fights that night, although I did not offer my couch or to introduce them to my lovable dogs.

The second unpleasant interaction was with Moonshake, an English band signed to the brilliant Too Pure label. They lacked the frenetic genius of label mates Th’ Faith Healers and Stereolab, and leader Dave Callahan and songstress Margaret Fielder didn’t have the charm and politeness of those bands. After receiving a call from the Matador offices asking for a last minute show for Moonshake as they came from Chicago to New York for the annual College Music Journal Marathon, I placed them on a bill with three noisy, garagey bands on Thrill Jockey: Zipgun and Gorilla were from Seattle (Gorilla had released a brilliant song called “Detox Man”) and, of course, Gaunt.  Moonshake didn’t like the fact that they had to go on second nor did they approve of the garage drunkenness of the other bands. Several times during the night, Margaret complained to me about the order of bands and the sounds of the bands.  At the end of the night, after splitting the modest door four ways, each band made roughly $150 (with the exception of Gaunt, who usually played for free on the shows I booked). Needless to say, Margaret was none too pleased with this and said, “Well, I think most people were here to see us as we are on Matador.” I was in no mood to get in a pissing match with a musician, so I simply walked away. Several days later we bumped into one another in the Matador offices, as we were all in New York City for the CMJ festival.

In the pastures of middle age, when the difficulties in life are simpler yet can be complicated by the spilling of apple juice, finding a moment to sink into the electric hum of guitars requires planning. Choices are made based on the effects that they have on one’s ability to navigate through to the next day and provide a modicum of the appearance of responsibility. In my office, the records climb the walls, the compact discs wrestle for space, and books long ago read ply for space on cheap warping particle board shelves. Downstairs, the stereo is surrounded by more compact discs and a few long lost but just discovered cassettes, with every vinyl record I have purchased over the past three years stacked underneath. Most are unopened, as I buy them out of habit, by rote as I navigate the various websites to purchase music. Again, as I did twenty years ago as the buyer for Used Kids, I either order directly from the labels (both Matador/Beggars and Merge are favorites, as their LPs contain download codes) or obtain new music from e-music (I subscribe to the connoisseur plan, 75 downloads a month) or get it on the cheap from Amazon. I usually run out of my downloads from E-music within a week and wrestle with whether I want purchase more downloads. Like a fat man eating pizza, I don’t always taste what I shove in my mouth—I consume and forget how to digest the music I hear. I find favorites for a moment (currently Bare Wires, Justin Townes Earle, and Love is All) and continue to be bowled over by old friends like Superchunk and Teenage Fanclub.

Over our lifetimes, we gather, hoard, and discard, playing a mathematical game of emotion versus materialism. I have spent the last nine years quitting—quitting drinking, quitting screwing around on my wife, trying to quit eating shitty food, quitting expecting myself to be someone who I may have been but can no longer be. I have seen the destruction of longing and attachment eat up the ones I love the most, leaving bare spaces of loss in my psyche that I try to fill up with a new life of young children and, of course, music.

Sometimes I play a mental game, revisiting myself as a younger man wading into a scene I was once very much a part of. Now I sit outside the lines, learning to not so gracefully be a bystander to the lives of others who are a bit younger and a bit more curious. I can see myself picking up a bottle at whatever show is playing at Columbus’s newest version of Staches (this year it is the Summit) and making the young women cackle and the men nod in agreement. I realize that with my graying hair sticking out like a thorny bush, a slight paunch not from alcohol but from exhaustion, and daily stubble that resembles tiny bits of prickly confetti scattered around my mouth as if they were a small parade for the losers, I would be a mess in a matter of hours. I would pine for my new self while wrestling for a time that came and went and was left asunder by alcoholism and mental illness that, fortunately, never held me hostage. Instead, I climb into bed early, even when I have the notion to huddle next to the stage, bobbing my head back and forth while a band plays loud and passionately.

I got an email from my cousin’s wife a few months ago asking if I was going to Las Vegas for the Matador Anniversary show—three nights of memories that would not be a nostalgia act but a celebration. I gazed at the lineup: Superchunk, Guided by Voices, Chavez, Pavement, and Yo La Tengo. These names brought me back to some of the happiest moments of my life, as they provided a soundtrack to a life that I lived and still live. They all meant something personal to me, either by casual relationships or because of the sheer beauty of the music they made. Superchunk’s music defined several breakups in my life. Their album Foolish provided me with solace as I maneuvered through several fleeting relationships in 1995, grappling with the fact that perhaps a fuckup means you’re not able to sustain any type of relationship that requires being able to navigate the end of a night without some assistance from a bottle. Likewise, Here’s to Shutting Up provided the balm to me when, at the ripe age of thirty-three, I was as broken and shattered as the plane imagery of that album, with lines such as “plane crash footage on tee-vee, I know that could be me” (“Phone Sex”), and “they’re building skeletons out of steel” (“The Animal Has Left It’s Shell”) and another song “Out on a Wing”, the record eerily mirrored the tragedy of the Twin Towers. Sometimes, crawling inside of a record is the safest thing a person can do, safer than the clutch of another body holding on for dear life as the emotions drip from the ending of and the beginnings of dreams. In the comfort of sound, we could be who we dreamed to be, with invisible walls that drew attention away from the bewildering aspects of our lives, we found consolation in sound. Even water is drawn to water, so it was the underground sounds found is home in those of us who choose to live outside the parameters set for us. The fact that most of us were white, (somewhat) college educated, and prone to make cynical and ironic statements made us prone to derision by some, surely not the same amount of derision we felt for much of mainstream culture.

As my wife and I visited Gainesville in the late spring of 2001, we stayed in hotel in the middle of the University of Florida campus. The atmosphere was thick with smoke erupting out of fires that had engulfed much of central Florida. As I gazed out into the swamp of the campus, the environment thick with green, creeping plants and the encroaching smoke snarling the hopes I had for a successful marriage, I had a feeling that the fires did not portend a hopeful year. While there offering my newlywed spouse the fragile words of encouragement for a lifelong and very adult dream of teaching fine arts to adults, I felt a touch of sickness for myself and for her, in her dreams I slowly realized that a part of mine was shifting, disintegrating around me. Snaggled and constricted like the smoke that was slowing covering the ground below. Appropriately one of the most painful songs on Here’s to Shutting Up that I repeatedly subjected myself to, is titled “Florida’s on Fire.”

After gazing at the line-up for the anniversary show, I emailed my wife, whose last concert was five years ago (Sonic Youth and the Flaming Lips). I was startled by the fact that she said that she might consider attending. Sadly, but with a tiny amount of relief, I realized that the event would be held during my monthly weekend of graduate school classes. We could not attend. I would be in Cleveland, learning how to be more skilled in the act of providing clinical compassion. In the years since giving up the bottle, I have learned that I suffer from a social phobia. It is with a small sense of dread that I attend concerts. I set little rules for myself when attending shows—I go late, usually when the band I want to see is ready to go on and I leave when I grow tired. Last month I saw Titus Andronicus, staying for only about six songs. I thought that they were brilliant, but I had to get up the next morning and shuffle off to work after helping balance a jittery house filled with two over-anxious youngsters. I know that I can’t operate on as little sleep as I once did, even without a hangover. Seeing Pavement earlier this month was a pleasant experience, but I had no desire to wander up to the stage or try to talk to the band that once slept on my floor after I booked them several times in Columbus. I sat back and marveled at the easy pleasure they had in playing old songs and how well they all looked. Tonight the reformed Guided by Voices are playing in a show that may be one of their only Columbus shows that I did not have a hand, I haven’t decided if I am going to go yet (I did decide to go and had a wonderful time). Perhaps more than any other band, I have been identified with GBV, mostly due to the fact that a very good bootleg was recorded at my 26th birthday party when they were hitting their stride. Crying Your Knife Away was recorded shortly before Bee Thousand was released and after Alien Lanes was already finished (Alien Lanes was tentatively called Scalping the Guru at the time). We were all friends then, but over the course of time we have become un-friends. This is not due to any squabbling, but my own interests rise and fall as every diaper is changed.

In the newest New Yorker, Sasha Frere-Jones writes a somewhat dismissive article about Pavement, accusing the band in not-so-subtle terms of playing reserved and couching their sound in an attitude built around their supposed “normalcy” to exclude people who were unlike them.  He thus dismisses the cultural times that the band was created in—that of Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior, the aforementioned prefab shit of eighties hair-metal, the radio bombast of Phil Collins, and the tepidness of inauthentic rebels like Billy Idol and Bon Jovi, who were about as dangerous as a two-liter bottle of Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers. Mr. Jones misses the point. We longed for normalcy to combat the force-fed tripe many of us suffered through while growing up in high schools across the land. There were sonic oases to be found on the far-left bands of FM radio stations and in the bins of local record stores. It was bands like Pavement, Guided by Voices, Mudhoney, and Superchunk that bound us together, providing the belief and determination that we didn’t have to buy the bill of goods that mainstream America was throwing against the wall. If anything, Pavement brought the warm, reality-based sounds of the Velvet Underground into the nineties, and they had enough self assurance not to have to wear sunglasses indoors or have tattoos of women whose breasts were as big as watermelons on their arms. There was no need to pretend to be something else—a Disney version of rock & roll—because we were self assured enough in our own lives to realize that we may not have known what we wanted, but we did know what we didn’t want. If you were in the middle of Mr. Jones, so-called clique, it didn’t feel that way, it felt like home.

After having spent a vast amount of time trying to tear our worlds down night by night, beer by beer, shot by shot, and note by note, I now spend my days trying to rebuild lives, sentence by sentence, listen by listen, and patience by patience. It is an ongoing struggle that is tempered by the gold soundz of my MP3 player.

Jenny Mae & Jerry Wick part 38: First Death

September 23, 2010

First Death.

Every time I visit my memories I bump into the dead, who curl around my thoughts like wisps of smoke rising up and disintegrating into the air, silent but ever present in spite of my busy life filled with middle-aged responsibilities. As my two fair-haired children dance for me, arms extended as if only I can temper the giddiness that shoots like downed power lines from their frantic arms, I think of moments of true escape from the closed dread of an ordinary life that I once both at times strived for and repelled with all of my might. Sleep comes harder but is more restful as I wade into my forties, with the experiences someone who has seen breathtaking beauty and horror in the same moment but with the fear of a mortality that has yet to enter my children’s life. There is a story that the Buddha’s father tried in vain to protect his son from the destruction of life, but it wasn’t until Shakyamuni Buddha witnessed the true revulsion of life that he became determined to vanquish his attachment to the material world and the causes of suffering. At times, as I gaze down at the blond jewels of my life, the sparkling of life emanating out of their big blue eyes, setting each moment on fire, I gaze into their future, trying in vain to protect them from the tragedies of survival. I am nothing but a bystander as the moments tick past, and the floor of life rises faster than anything my eyes has ever held It is pointless to try to protect them. As a father, I can only try to help them navigate tragedies as they appear in their lives, for in surviving one is the constant spectator of both the elegance and ugliness of life.

After my breakup with Jenny, I couch surfed in Columbus for a few months and rented a small apartment in Athens. I would make my getaway to Athens on the weekends, spending time at The Union Bar on West State Street. As a boy, I spent my afternoons in uptown Athens at the Side-One Record store that stood almost exactly across the street from the Union. This was in the late 70s and early 80s, when I was in middle-school. Both the store and the town provided a purpose to me, as I searched for a family that had disintegrated in the hushed tones of secrets and mental illness that, sadly, have remained unchecked for thirty years.

Side-One was a sliver of a store wedged between the underground comic book/used record store/tee-shirt shop known as Hoffa’s and The Underwear. It sold mostly cut-out LPs with a few new releases. The two men who ran it, were kind to me. Taking a gawky, nerdy kid of eleven under their wings, they let me play records and howled as I mimicked the bass lines of late 70s funk and “Another One Bites The Dust.” They seemed to live the easy life, sipping beers behind the counter and playing Herman Brood and His Wild Romance at top volume. Across the street, stood the Union, a townie biker bar that sold hot dogs for a dollar and let me in to order for the gentlemen from the record shop. I knew at that early age what I wanted from life—an opportunity to escape into the safe confines of laughter and music. Sadly, Side-One closed up shop the summer of my seventh grade year, forced out by the larger and more in-depth School Kids Records, a semi-loose brand of indie-stores that catered to the punk and college rock of university campuses in Big Ten country.

Every college town had one. In Columbus we had two: Bernie’s & Staches. In Champaign it was the Blind Pig, Cleveland had the Euclid Tavern, and Chapel Hill had the Cat’s Cradle. While I never visited Champaign or Chapel Hill, those night clubs were known country-wide as safe havens for the near dropouts, rockers, and bookish music nerds of the American underground scene. The Blind Pig was made famous by the long forgotten Honcho Overload, who described the best method of romantic revenge as getting wasted. The Cat’s Cradle was the clubhouse of all things North Carolina, namely Superchunk, who provided the soundtrack of our lives and deaths.

Athens had a pretty health music scene that was a bit more ragged, freakish, and organic than the hardened punkish and ironic sounds of Columbus. Folks in Athens were more prone to dance, even to the bizarre hardness of some of the Amphetamine Reptile bands, such as The Cows and Surgery, who played there often. The most popular bands in Athens were the majestic Appalachian Death Ride and Torque, who managed to get the gritty, metallic hate of the Amrep bands down to a science. I was more inclined to ADR, whose sounds came from the same organic roots as such like-minded bands of the time as Mudhoney, early Soul Asylum, and Eleventh Dream Day, bands whose high school record collections contained not only Neil Young, but also The Stooges, Black Sabbath, and early hardcore.

Torque branded itself as hate rock. They were led by a large, good-looking singer-guitarist named Pat Brown, whose girth was offset by his glinting blue eyes and goodnatured laugh. He never wanted for a woman. The drummer, Ted O’Neal, was a friendly, handsome man who had long dark locks of curly hair that no doubt played a part in him securing a breathtakingly beautiful woman named Marissa. Ted manned several bars in Athens, including the Union and Tony’s. Tony’s was the underground version of a sports bar, where you could go to watch the Browns on a Sunday afternoon while My Bloody Valentine, Prisonshake, or Gram Parsons provided the play-by-play. Ted was the best kind of bartender. He freely provided me with a two-for-one special every time I ordered. This was manna for a happy drunkard.

The Union was a long bar, with small booths crammed against the wall just a body-width from the long bar that ran 2/3 the length of the building. There was a small area in which those delicious hot dogs were made and a back area that held a pool table and one shitty Simpson’s video game. The club portion was upstairs—a shoe box of a concert setting containing a large stage with sightlines that were hindered by support columns and the use of too many intoxicants. This was nothing to complain about, as the crowds in Athens always moved to the music, whether it was Tar, The Cynics, or a local art-school experiment. The walls were covered with Pabst Blue Ribbon signs and the shoddy, amateurish paintings of patrons who aspired to be more than the sum of their talents (as we all do).

I used some of my contacts to help book several shows at the Union, as I was, by this time, getting my feet wet and wallet soaked promoting shows in Columbus at Bernie’s and Staches. But for every money-making show with Love Battery, Sebadoh, or Pavement, there were money-gulping shows like Moonshake, the aforementioned Eleventh Dream Day, the Grifters, and the incredible Thinking Fellers Union Local 282. I had helped arrange some show in the fall of 1994 at the Union. I have no idea what it was, but I was in the midst of developing my talent as a baffling, hysterical, frenzied, alcoholic being. Prone to an elevated state of being fueled by Jim Beam, long-neck beers, and copious amounts of coffee, I could somehow channel the energy of my future children. This usually brought about tears of laughter to my eyes, as I was a stand-up comic in my own head. Many of the onlookers got my joke (i.e., the joke was me), but others were embarrassed. I had no impulse control.

Ted lived with Eric Gunn, whose love for all things hateful was only surpassed by an obsessive record- collecting gene. He had boxes of records spread out in his damp, semi-crooked house that smelled of perpetual marijuana smoke, stale alcohol, damp carpet, and the mustiness that only a large wolf-like dog can provide. I spent several nights on the uneven couch in that house. The afterhours would be cramped with people huddled around the worn coffee table. As the bong was passed, I would demur—I had no use for anything that would impede the racing buzz that flowed through my body. I stood at full drunken power, rapidly describing the different life choices of me and my Green Beret brother, who lived in Athens and knew many of the Union regulars but had a life of college classrooms, rugby, and bars.

Although much of that time is faded, fuzzy, and forgotten, I do remember a comical discussion my brother and I had about him wanting to give me gun. I had tried to describe to him how I was unhinged, and that putting a gun in my hands was akin to giving an anvil to a drowning man. I remember Ted and Marissa laughing as the verbal bolts of lightning shot out of my mouth and into the room. A week later, Ted lay in a hospital bed in Columbus, clutching to life as a shot of heroin proved too much for his battered body. Ted hung on for two weeks, during which time visiting friends met and shared memories at my house. I slowly fell in love with my first wife during this time, even though I was seeing another woman from Athens. As Ted struggled to regain consciousness, I became enamored with Robin, who had dark black hair and a wickedly fast sense of humor. We would gather in my obtuse living room, drinking beer and trading stories as each of us thought of death, lust and friendship in our own separate manner.

Ted was buried in Dayton. We gathered at Pat Brown’s  parents house. His parents exuded Republican, Midwestern values—his mother made Velveeta Mexican dip with Triscuits and we were all on our best behavior. As I pulled out of the cemetery and drove back to Athens with a woman I would break up within a matter of days as I tried to seduce my first wife, I popped in an advance copy of Bee Thousand and listened to “Ester’s Day” over and over. Ted was the first friend who died in my life.

Jerry Wick and Jenny Mae part 29: Ohio

April 3, 2010


Growing up in Ohio is different for all Ohioans, most because, like so much of the United States, Ohio is both vastly rural and also contains some of the largest and best known cities in the country. Everybody has heard of Cleveland and Cincinnati two large cities with history and reputations. Cleveland was populated by a large ethnic population from Eastern Europe, with massive Serbian, Hungarian and Czech immigrants who traveled west-ward to boil away their lives in the steel mills and manufacturing jobs of Northeastern Ohio. Cincinnati is nestled in the southwestern part of the state, just across from Kentucky; it is metaphorically across the invisible mason-Dixon line of Ohio. Hamilton and Clermont counties are two of the most conservative counties in Ohio, and while much of the state has overcome many of the racial tensions, Cincinnati with several large riots in the past two decades appears, at times mired in the early 1960’s.

Columbus would be that invisible Mason-Dixon Line, most people have heard of Columbus, the largest in terms of population of all the cities in Ohio it is mostly known as the largest college town in the country. A city that lives and breathes Ohio State football, which was mired in a multi-decade hangover after repeated defeats in the Rose Bowl that costs the saintly Buckeyes numerous National Championships. Even the smaller cities of Ohio are known, Toledo, Dayton, Canton and Akron have all garnered space in the minds of national citizenry, even if it is for such pop-culture phenomena as Corporal Klinger, the Wright brothers, the Pro Football Hall of Fame and rubber tires.

Then there is small town Ohio, with images of Sherwood Anderson, unlocked doors, county fairs filled with cotton candy and first kisses. An idealistic concept that feeds into the basic American dream that a small-town anybody can arise from corn-fields and hidden glens to climb into space like Neil Armstrong or John Glenn, the Presidency (seven of them-all mediocre hail from Ohio, or the silver screen such as Paul Newman and Clark Gable.

Because of its history and rich tradition, Ohio ranks fifth in colleges and universities which logically lead one to believe this is the reason it is home to so many artistic and inventive people. In spite of all of this, when one grows up in Ohio, one has the feeling of being the underdog, of someone who always just comes up short.

Ohio is known and felt as an also-ran, an area known for what it almost has but never had, and in fact never will. For an ocean we have a large lake, for mountains we have foothills and we are forever defined by our collective losses. Our sports teams are known for despair, in Cleveland it is brought out in such slogans as The Fumble, The Drive and losing the World Series with one out to go. Cincinnati is tethered to a football team better known as the Bungles and Ohio State Football went thirty years between National Championships and is better known now for losing two in the past five years. We are in our hearts cynical but lovable malcontents.

Musically, Ohio is rich, especially when it comes to punk rock, with an abrasive arty sound that helped birth the movement. Helped by the ample liberal arts colleges that dot the state, such as Oberlin, Kenyon and Antioch and huge state universities such as The Ohio State University, Ohio University, Kent State and Bowling Green. The arts scenes have always burped out terrific and idiosyncratic fare such as Pere Ubu, Devo, the Wolverton Brothers, the Dead Boys, and Guided by Voices. In the late eighties each town had its own brand that helped define and nurture the other bands and artists. Cleveland had the most excellent and under-appreciated Prisonshake, the Mice, Death of Samantha, My Dad is Dead and Cruel, Cruel Moon. Dayton had Guided by Voices. Cincinnati had the aforementioned Wolverton Brothers whose shambling country-art punk is as twisted as anything from a David Lynch movie, the Ass Ponys and the Afghan Whigs. Athens birthed Appalachian Death Ride and Geraldine, two sinister bands that would be at least marginally famous if they resided anywhere but Athens, Ohio.

In Columbus, we first had Jim Shepard (Vertical Slit/V-3), Scrawl, the Great Plains, the Gibson Brothers, Royal Crescent Mob, Boys From Nowhere and Mike Rep all made up of various odd-balls and characters who would play a huge role in the development of what is somewhat now being regarded as a high point in the Columbus underground scene. The specialness of that time was mostly due to the large and fanatical friendships and respect we had for not only one another but also for those bands that set the stage. Jerry Wick and Jenny Mae would both be besides themselves to share the stage with any Ron House fronted band and the same would be said for the New Bomb Turks who would open for any band they deeply respected, whether it be the Fastbacks (from Seattle) or Prisonshake.

We put stock in ourselves and to a large part, our friends. Friends who would carry the torch of loneliness offset by a burning desire to be heard and to hopefully lay next to another congenial soul by five am. Our hopes, crashed as theirs did when things did not quite pan out as we had planned. We were prepared for it, as it is in an Ohioan’s soul to step up to the plate and be called out by the proverbial sinker ball. Three strikes. The Trip. The Fumble. The Drive. Etcetera and so forth. Nobody got famous, nobody ever really made a dent in any product counting mechanism like Billboard, The College Music Journal or MTV but we loved and cherished one another as if our lives depended on it, night in and night out. What we discovered was the result wasn’t the prize; the prize was the friendship and the making of art for fuck’s sake. That is what an Ohioan does, not always stylish but always sincere.